Australia: ‘how big is too big’?

(Why) is Australia now so ‘overcrowded’ that the quality of life is being quickly eroded? Why is the planning behind the new urban sprawl (and the lingering death of older suburbs as well as rural towns) so obviously based on developer profit and greed rather than community need and sustainable ‘visions’ of the future by politicians rather than real leaders – who don’t seem to have any genuine interest in sustaining even a semblance of a quality Australian lifestyle? And whilst its now obvious that Sydney, Melbourne and South-East Queensland are already ‘full’ (and getting fuller), why are there still now real or genuine efforts to address a key cause of this – the desperate acceleration of migration since the late 1990s. With apparently 3.6 million new migrants (or 1 in 7 of all Australians) arriving over the last 20 years, why does it appear there has not been any appropriate planning responses for adequate infrastructure, for emerging social cohesion in a ‘big empty country’, and with the alternative economic imperative for ‘local talent’ through genuinely exploring and developing better ways of improving the education system and society for the workforce of the future? There are always the promises of smart cities for a smart country, but we tend to just get dumb planners intent on dumbing us all down as they cover their backsides to conceal the damage they are inflicting on us all.

The ABC special 7.30 report ‘how big is too big?’ (1) touched a nerve in me – and probably did also in many others as well. Last year I did a trip down to Melbourne via Sydney (from Brisbane) and was shocked to see the dramatic extent of the careless and obviously relentless urban sprawl in once rural areas as you entered Melbourne (2) from the North – and how this was not just going on in every direction around Melbourne but also in Sydney (3) and around Brisbane (etc) the obvious developer carnage in traditional suburbs and lifestyles in the form of houses knocked down for apartment blocks, the traffic gridlocks, old social or business hubs now dead or over-run with graffiti, and new centres with little thought for community or sustainable infrastructure provision. Typical of this was how much new population growth in Sydney was taking place West of Parramatta all the jobs remain to the East and in the centre – ensuring future traffic gridlocks as well as social wastelands with notions of adequate infrastructure and community sustainability an apparent afterthought of no real interest to the developers as well as politicians who have again colluded on selling out ‘the Australian dream’ (4).

We have elsewhere touched upon the role of motor tollway promoter and profiteer Transurban (who recently added the WestConnex motorway to its stable) (5) in encouraging blind urban sprawl and a loss of quality of life as they encourage governments to privatise public infrastructure so they can profiteer at the expense of the community in future. As noted, Transurban likes to claim they are trying to fix the problem when they clearly have a vested interest in worsening it and seem to be intent on encouraging politicians to ignore the more sustainable options and solutions (6). So, they exemplify how over the last 20 years or so, Australian society has increasingly been sold out to often dodgy and always self-interested corporate profiteers and tax-evaders (so often from overseas) at the local expense.

As most are now starting to realise, the greatest cost is in the form of a younger generation of millennials who have become increasingly disillusioned and, sadly, often cynical and self-interested themselves -as they see the cost of ‘the dream’ (of home, family, and quality lifestyle) disappear on the horizon and a future of permanent rent along with casual or insecure work their likely lifelong lot in the so-called emerging ‘gig economy’ (7).  But the land and property price rises over the last decade have also tended to price out quality community service professionals (teachers, nurses, police etc) from urban centers as, conversely, regional and rural centers have been typically dying (8). The result seems to be the often new wasteland versions of ‘the dream’ in outer city areas pushed by the developers. Those new centres that do benefit from accountable developers liaising with responsible and even innovative community leaders (yes, there are some if not many) will no doubt produce vibrant new communities – but too often or mostly that will not happen.

The blindness is also typified by how vertical ‘high density’ living (which as many overseas cities exemplify, can be vibrant and sustainable if allowed to be) is too often promoted now in Australia without any real infrastructure or social interest.  The ABC program briefly look at an example of this in Sydney (Mickleham). And it just so happened that last week in my own neck of the woods the Gold Coast city council outraged locals when it dramatically contradicted its own city plan rules in approving a 20 story building in Main Beach on a small block with no garden area which will block out buildings behind from the sun (9) – setting a dangerous ‘anything goes’ precedent. . The ABC report pointed out how the Federal government (which approves migration policy) is not aligned with the state governments who have to provide services and basic infrastructure – forgetting how then you have even further dis-alignment with local councils who (especially in Qld) can and often are influenced by profiteering developers to approve often non-sustainable Development Plans which put ‘profits before people’. People from Mickelham in Sydney and outer suburbs in Melbourne similarly pointed out how the green light for high-density inner city as well as outer suburb developments so often seems to take place without forward planning to include relevant local infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and public parks as well as local community centres. Both these related tendencies seem to be designed for wage slaves spending their life (if they are lucky enough to have a job) in traffic gridlock or even on crowded trains and buses.

In earlier posts we have regularly pointed out how since Australia (following the example of the UK and others) (10) has moved to privatise both public infrastructure and national industries that a variety of types of crooks (corporate and otherwise, mostly foreign and some local) have honed in like a plague of predators. As typified by how the buy-up of aged care centers has led to such abuse and profiteering that the Australian government was recently prodded into a Royal Commission about this, clearly many of the operators don’t really give a damn about the welfare of Australian seniors or about the general loss of quality in the Australian lifestyle. Likewise, there was little or no interest from special government investigations in our (and related) related submissions offering good advice into the taxi industry and tolling rorts crises – for instance, how we not only pointed out that as  well as decentred hubs of work, leisure and community (11) Australian cities must encourage public transport solutions in terms of the kind of the generally ignored ‘first mile-last mile’ problem of getting people quickly and cheaply to train stations and bus-stops that a sustainable resolution to the taxi vs. Uber crisis could assist with (12).

But similar examples abound now across Australian society and related services, as well as most industries and infrastructure provision. All this is why Australians need to speak up, to defend themselves, and to demand more accountability from not only politicians and bureaucrats (who seem to be selling them out) but also the corporations and various other dodgy or even crooked organisations that are increasingly running the show.

There are arguably a few key reasons why the Australian lifestyle (and general quality of life) is being undone at such a world-class accelerating rate. Above all else it is because we have politicians and bureaucrats who have no real loyalty to the place which they tend to see as basically empty and with unlimited resources which can be endlessly exploited – people have neither the interest or capacity to balance the dilemmas and contradictions of sustainable development. In short, as ‘how big is too big’ report exemplifies, we have no-one at the wheel responsible or committed enough although our leaders like to pretend they do (unlike other banana republics in the third world especially which at least don’t pretend about this, and often do stumble along somehow). Population increase and ‘higher density’ living can be made sustainable, and even potentially ‘healthy’ as a SMH article points out (15). But it seems that it’s almost certain that local, state and national governance in Australia is going to ‘stuff it up’ in this as well as in most other policy areas. We can have smart cities in a smart country, but instead we get dumb policies by dumb leaders who tend to make us increasingly dumb to let them get away with this – and to settle for bad outcomes, cynical compromises and ad hoc or chaotic responses to pressing challenges.

As typified by our political parties always attacking each other and undermining the other in government, our politicians and the bureaucrats behind the scenes are often too busy ignoring the blatant self-interest and corruption and the obviously bad and non-sustainable policies that are destroying our way of life and accelerating the breakdown of any residual sense of community. This is on top of how our political, business and community leaders typically have no sustainable vision of the future. And they seem to have no capacity for the kind of systems thinking and complex problem-solving needed to find balanced and sustainable solutions to challenges of population increase, the push for high density, and the related need to integrated infrastructure and community needs as well as transport, industry and related future sustainability solutions.  Such a capacity should be encouraged and supported in our schools and universities – but they too have failed us by too often lapsing into a meaningless and incompetent credentialism (or getting a piece of paper in graduation which neither reflects or encourages any real-life relevance). For what it’s worth, we have explored for some time in depth what is needed by our planners, our policy-makers and our so-called ‘leaders’ but continues to be ignored (15 -see below)












11 Richards, C. (2013). From smart cities to sustainable communities: The cross-disciplinary foundations of a sustainable policy research inquiry into the implications of the global ‘smart city’ model, Paper prepared for the 4th Social, Development and Environmental Studies International Conference, 19th March, UKM, Bangi




15 See also:

Richards, C & Padfield C.  (2016).  An interdisciplinary approach to industry and sector problem-solving,  Asian Journal of Policy and Innovation, 5(1), 55-71

Richards, C. (2015) Outcomes-based authentic learning, portfolio assessment, and a systems approach to ‘complex problem-solving’ in future higher education, Journal of  Problem-Based Learning in Higher Education, 3 (1) 79-97.

Richards, C. (2013). From smart cities to sustainable communities: The cross-disciplinary foundations of a sustainable policy research inquiry into the implications of the global ‘smart city’ modelPaper prepared for the 4th Social, Development and Environmental Studies International Conference, 19 March, UKM, Bangi

Richards, C. (2013). The enneagrammatic structure of integrated, optimal and sustainable problem-solving, Emergence: Complexity & Organization  An International Transdisciplinary Journal of Complex Social Systems. 15 (1), 15-33.

Richards, C. (2012). Sustainable policy making and implementation: Towards a new paradigm for a changing world, Development Review, 21, 23-35.

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